Ray Hawks, a boaster?

"Not so," the 91-year-old World War II veteran will tell you, even though his illustrious life is full of accomplishments about which he could brag.

None more noteworthy than being recognized June 14 at the "Salute to Veterans" ceremony at the National Airline History Museum at Kansas City’s Wheeler Field. In a special ceremony, Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders recognized Ray Hawks of Independence and a Lee’s Summit woman for helping build B-25 bombers at the North American Aviation’s Fairfax plant in Kansas City.

Ray experienced a "dream come true" when invited to climb aboard the "Axis Nightmare" - an historic B-25 like those manufactured at Fairfax in the 1940s - for a 45-minute flight around the metropolitan area.

Ray recalled sitting behind the pilot thinking he could have flown the bomber had he been given the chance.

"I felt that if (the pilot) could keep (the plane) on the runway, I could make it take off because that old feeling of the controls came back (to me)."

Why so confident?

After all, aviation was no stranger to Ray. In addition to working on B-25s in the early years of WWII, he also was a U.S. Army Air Corps fighter pilot. Assigned to the 9th Air Force, 367th Fighter Group, 394th Squadron, he flew mostly P-38s and P-47s. However, he admits to flying "all the fighter planes except the P-51."

It wasn’t until Ray was an Air Force Reserve pilot that he finally got a chance to co-pilot and pilot a B-25 like the ones he put together at the Fairfax plant – a feat not likely duplicated by anyone else.

What happened was a pilot friend asked him if he would be his co-pilot on a two-hour flight from Goldberg, N.C., to Pittsburgh, Pa.

With nothing else better to do at the time, Ray accepted the offer, he says, because "I was curious to see how this airplane flew."

And how did it fly?

"It flew real nice; it exceeded expectations," Ray says of the return flight as the command pilot.

After landing in Pennsylvania, "I had to look up a co-pilot to take us back home," he recalls, noting he flew the bomber without having the paperwork showing he was qualified.

Intrigued by aeronautics, Ray attended the American Aeronautical Institute in Kansas City after graduating from Versailles (Mo.) High School in 1941.

Knowing he soon would be drafted, he went to work at the Fairfax plant and made a name for himself. His first job was rigging B-25 engine controls, which Richard Thompson, a close friend, says was one of the most difficult jobs on the assembly line.

Difficult, he says, "Because the grease on the control pulleys was too heavy, and all the pulleys had to be changed."

Richard, who participated in the interview, says "Ray spent many 16-hour shifts changing pulleys because he was able to complete three airplanes when the standard was just one."

For this achievement, he received a one-year deferment from military service because of his skill and the importance of his job.

Informed the Army Air Corps wasn’t accepting any more enlistments, Ray immediately redirected his life.

"I showed up on their doorstep the next day and enlisted, he recalls, adding: "I decided I wanted to fly." And fly he did, earning his pilot’s wings at Luke Field in Arizona, in the class of 44E.

Assigned as a replacement pilot in the 367th Group, he arrived in Reims, France, just prior to the Battle of the Bulge.

"My main job was close-air support," he recalls. "We did fly on escort missions, but most of our missions were dive-bombing over Germany by the time I got there."

During his one-year deployment in France, Ray made 48 missions and escaped unscathed, despite some close calls.

"I never had enough damage on an airplane that I couldn’t fly it," he says, noting that on two occasions, the two pilots flying in front of him received hits. Ray, though, slipped through without any incidents.

The P-38, though, wasn’t his favorite plane, Ray says, because of the numerous coolant lines that cooled the engine, and because the aircraft was vulnerable to ground fire.

"I was tickled to death when they switched over to P-47s," he says, with Richard Thompson interjecting: "(The P-47) had an air-cooled engine, so it was more suited to ground attacks. It would take more ground damage and still bring you back."

During the Battle of the Bulge, Ray’s fighter group provided air cover for Gen. George Patton’s Third Army.

"My mission started before daylight, and sometimes I would have to land at night," Ray says, explaining that fighter planes might fly two or three missions the same day with different pilots. "In other words, we were in close support for Patton. It was constant service."

Following the war, Ray returned to Fairfax in 1946 to work for General Motors. Six years later, GM manufactured 500 Republic F-84 Thunderstreak fighters at its Fairfax plant from 1952 to 1956, and Ray served as foreman and the final inspector for Air Force acceptance for each plane.

Retiring from Fairfax in 1963, Ray put aeronautics aside and launched a highly successful career as a new-car salesman in Eastern Jackson County.

How successful was he? Outstanding enough to be selected five consecutive years to the General Motors Hall of Fame.

But his achievements didn’t stop at the Hall. He, along with two other salesmen from two different states, starred in a training film entitled "How to Sell GM Cars." The film was used in all 50 states and 37 foreign countries.

Says Ray about his movie debut: "I knew all of my lines and there were no retakes."

Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.